How Hilary Mantel became a titan of British literature

Hilary Mantel in her youth
'She could see right into other people’s minds': a young Hilary Mantel

“Hilary Mantel could see around corners, beyond facades and right into other people’s minds,” says her agent, Bill Hamilton. A year after the double Booker-winning author’s death from a stroke, aged 70, he describes her as “something of a medium” in her unsettling ability to unpick the locks of others.

Although she used this skill to its most dazzling and intricate effect in her Wolf Hall trilogy – leading readers down the dark corridors of the Tudor Court in the sly company of Thomas Cromwell – it’s also on delicious display in A Memoir of My Former Self. This new collection of Mantel’s non-fiction writing ranges from the film reviews she wrote for The Spectator in the 1980s to her previously unpublished 2017 Reith Lectures. It finds her rejoicing in the good clean violence of Robocop, seeking solace in the pages of stationery catalogues, and interrogating the legacy of Princess Diana.

“I was delighted to discover just how funny her journalism was,” says the book’s editor, Nicholas Pearson. “Although I’ve been editing her novels for 20 years, I must admit I hadn’t read many of these pieces before and it was such a treat to sit down with them to liven the long, grey winter. Her articles about subjects as unexpected as perfume are just wonderful, she brings such clarity of thought and depth of feeling to them because there was no snobbery about her.” Mantel loved newspapers. “I can make any paper last two hours,” she wrote, “and when I’ve finished, it’s not fit for another hand; it looks as if a drunk has been making paper hats with it.”

Paid an advance of only £2,000 for her first novel, Mantel needed journalism to subside the slow process of her fiction writing. In 1986 she submitted an essay to the Shiva Naipaul Prize, awarded to “the writer best able to describe a visit to a foreign place or people. It is not for travel writing in the conventional sense, but for the most acute and profound observation of cultures and/or scenes evidently alien to the writer.” The judges included Martin Amis and the-then editor of The Spectator, Charles Moore, who was instantly impressed by the “strikingly perceptive” and “hostile” tone of Mantel’s winning entry Last Morning in Al Hamra.

Analysing her experience of expatriate life in Saudi Arabia, Mantel described the loss of her youthful worldview. Before her extended stay in the Kingdom, she had imagined the world as “some sort of exchange scheme for my ideals,” offering equal opportunities for her to teach and learn from the populations of other countries. But her encounter with Saudi Arabia’s opaque and oppressive patriarchy forced the realisation that “when you come across an alien culture you must not automatically respect it. You must sometimes pay it the compliment of hating it.”

Hilary Mantel in 2012, the year she won the Booker Prize for the second time
Hilary Mantel in 2012, the year she won the Booker Prize for the second time - Andrew Crowley

Hamilton reminds me that Mantel’s years in the Kingdom were a continuation of a life spent in the clever contemplation of what it meant to be “a complete outsider”. “Hilary was raised as an Irish Catholic (who lost her faith aged 12) in a northern English town. Although Catholicism wasn’t safe and the nuns – whom she described as “monstrous apparitions” in her novel Fludd – were horrid and beat the children. At home, her mother wasn’t the person she pretended to be and her father just vanished [after a short period of cohabiting with her stepfather].”

As a teenager she was keenly aware of her “blinding verbal facility” but also mistrusted it. “I had done nothing to acquire it,” she wrote, fretting that “I sounded as if I knew what I was talking about, even when I didn’t. You would have thought examiners would have seen right through me […]  It didn’t seem fair that words could do so much.”

She studied law at university, helping her hone her clarity of thought and her fascination with morality and its more pragmatic applications which drive her fiction. Hamilton suspects that she’d have “become a supreme court judge” had she not been prevented from practising law by poor health (eventually self-diagnosed as endometriosis requiring the removal of her womb and ovaries aged just 27).

Hamilton – who says he knew she was “good, very good” after reading the manuscript of the first novel she sent him – stresses that “Hilary had no support network in literary London for many years. She was a woman making her way in a universe dominated by incredibly cocky male novelists. And she was producing fiction that appeared different all the time, set in Africa, Saudi Arabia, the Midlands, the past, the present… So the challenge for me as her agent was: how do we get her across, how do we help people understand what she’s doing?” He exhales. “That took a long time.”

Bill Hamilton, Literary agent
‘She would have gone on writing for years if she could’: Hilary Mantel's agent Bill Hamilton - Lionel Derimais

“She was very anxious to please when she was establishing herself,” recalls Moore. “I had inherited Peter Ackroyd as The Spectator’s film critic and when he indicated that he wanted to stop I thought that might be a slot for Hilary. I noticed that while most journalists write to impress, Hilary wrote to write the best she could about the subject. Although she didn’t lack ego, she wasn’t driven by it.” The magazine’s arts editor at that time, Jenny Naipaul, says her reviews were “always filed on time, to length and perfectly written. Although her choice of film was often quite quirky.”

In the new book, Pearson says he has only featured reviews of films we’d still know today. She called them right, saluting the sharply written scripts of When Harry Met Sally, Withnail & I and eye-rolling the misogyny of Fatal Attraction. Noting that Michael Douglas’s adulterous character struggles to control his umbrellas when he meets his mistress (played by Glenn Close) she warns us that: “Nothing is to be expected of a chap who has such poor control over his phallic symbols.” Later, when he “sets the law on the troublesome harpy, and when he suggests she abort her child, and when he half-strangles her,” she’s irked that “we must somehow sympathise with him.”

While “writing in the dark” for The Spectator, Mantel was also reviewing books for the London Review of Books. “I have no critical training whatsoever,” she confessed to her editors at the periodical, “so I am forced to be more brisk and breezy than scholarly.”

Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies
Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies - Henry Holt and Company

Current LRB editor Alice Spawls stresses Mantel’s ability to “dance” in her prose. Though “never purple” she was often “original, fun”. Like everyone I speak to about Mantel, Spawls says she was even funnier in her letters and emails, which she hopes will one day be published.

But despite the “kindness and generosity” people felt in their personal dealings with her, Mantel was always crisp in her assessment of her fellow writers’ work. Even in her first review, she sniggered at one memoirist’s claim to have taken a position as a “humble typist”, noting that the woman’s tone suggested she had actually been a very “haughty” typist. And the scholarship flowed from Mantel in her thoughtful articles on everything from the French Revolution to the perception of British royal women throughout the ages.

“She’s the best writer on British royalty, ever, I think,” says Hamilton. “Just beyond compare. The piece about the party at Buckingham Palace, she saw things other people didn’t see. Those little piles of canapé sticks that royal guests had hidden behind the pillars? That’s the kind of thing Hilary noticed and they revealed so much.”

Given the chance to study the late Queen Elizabeth II at close quarters, Mantel felt she caught a glimpse of the young woman the Queen had been before “monarchy froze her and made her a thing, a thing which only had meaning when it was exposed, a thing that existed only to be looked at. And I felt sorry then. I wanted to apologise. I wanted to say: it’s nothing personal, it’s monarchy I’m staring at.”

Mantel maintained this love-hate relationship with the iconic figures of the court long after they were dead. In 2005, she wrote to the-then LRB editor Mary-Kay Wilmers about her progress with Wolf Hall, lamenting: “I have to kill off Cardinal Wolsey soon, and I’m going to miss him so much. The outfits, my dear! I wonder why we bother wearing anything but scarlet.”

Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis in BBC series Wolf Hall
Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis in BBC series Wolf Hall - Ed Miller

Charles Moore says she was “a distinguished example of an anti-Catholic Catholic” who brought a “Catholic understanding of characters such as Thomas More and the Duke of Norfolk while relishing the fact that Cromwell was a heretic, as Catholics would see it.” He tells me that, nearly 30 years after he first met her she wrote him a letter in praise of the first volume of his biography of Margaret Thatcher. “I am also “working with” a character (in the shape of Thomas Cromwell) who is clever and complex but doesn’t spend time in introspection: who really lives in the present moment, like a Test batsman facing fast bowling,” she wrote.

“That is a good description of her subject and mine,” Moore later reflected in print, “and it may shed light on how the world looks to someone from ‘humble’ origins who faces hostility as he/she rises to the pinnacle of power. It was to convey this ‘fast bowling’, I think, that Hilary Mantel, who keeps the reader in the room with Cromwell throughout, always uses the historic present: she is writing as if it were happening. As a biographer, not a novelist, I never had that freedom, but I envied hers.”

Both Pearson and Hamilton stress the hours Mantel put into her work. Nothing ever arrived on their desks without being polished to perfection. They say she told them most sentences in the Wolf Hall trilogy had been nipped, tucked and buffed many times as their author worked to exhume the truth and make history’s old bones shine. They both fall momentarily silent at the thought of the work she would have gone on to produce, had she lived. Hamilton says that: “Most writers settle into themselves when they achieve a certain level of success. Hilary never did. She always wanted to get better, she was always moving forward.”

Mantel had written 20,000 words towards her new novel, Provocation, when she died. An Austen obsessive, she’d chosen the overlooked Mary Bennet - younger sister of Pride & Prejudice’s heroine - as her narrator. In the opening paragraphs (which Hamilton assures me are the only parts of the book which will ever be made public) Mantel had clearly enjoyed endowing Mary with her own gift for seeing right through the ornate fencing of posh folk.

“Darcy was a more harmless soul than we had imagined, and replete with good intentions,” said Mantel’s Mary. “His silence in company proceeded, not from a conviction of natural superiority, but from a solid, sterling stupidity, such as an English gentleman alone dares display […] He is dull, but never knows it, he receives witty answers to witless questions. I saw that it would be Elizabeth’s lifetime work to collaborate with his innocent self-conceit. It is what she will give, in return for being mistress of Pemberley.”

Hamilton says: “We were ALL chortling over what she would have done with that book. It would have been the funniest thing ever.” He pauses. “She would have gone on writing for another 15-20 years if she could. And she’d have got better. That was who she was.”

A Memoir of My Former Self by Hilary Mantel is published by John Murray on October 19